Content warning: Audio will begin once you scroll past this (Song is Múm – Show Me). There is an option to toggle it off. Towards the end there is a second song (Imogen Heap – Hallelujah (cover)) which can also be toggled off. There is mention mention of underage sexual relations. Nothing terribly graphic but if you need specifics, please contact me and I will gladly let you know where you should stop reading and summarize that part so you can skip ahead. There is a lot of talk of religion, specifically of Catholicism. If this makes you uncomfortable I strongly suggest you not read this.
The Holy and The Broken
The house had only been around for about ten years, a blip on a timeline of the area. The church it sat behind was constructed over a hundred and fifty years ago. It was a refuge for the German immigrants who came to the U.S in the mid-1800s. The house was originally purchased for the priests until the monastery could be rebuilt.
The two large bedrooms on the second floor were used as office space while the three larger rooms on the first floor were for first year communion classes and a place for other preachers to give sermons. The basement was locked.
They said it was another house of God. I helped burn this house.
Eva and I met during the catequesis classes but we didn’t speak until the fourth week. She said we were friends but during those first few weeks I just called her “the classmate I talked to.” Several of the children—some as young as eight and others as old as sixteen—formed friendships in the same way: nervously and without any real investment.
We weren’t there for friends, we were there to fulfill an obligation to our parents. The younger children were dropped off at half past ten (their parents leaving for the early Spanish mass) with kisses to the forehead or cheek. The rest of us showed up around eleven; some (like myself) were in the habit of getting to places early but others got there earlier because it was better than staying at home.
Carol and Ana, the two women in charge of our class, usually left us alone until half past eleven when they’d round us up to read the Bible or recite some prayers. The younger children kept to the yard, running around, pushing at the loose boards of the fence, stomping on the broken glass by the basement window, delighting when the shards disappeared underneath the dirt. The older children found other ways to entertain themselves. Usually this involved the basement.
We weren’t allowed there but we tried to get in anyway, confident in our attacks of the lock with hairpins or paper clips. Not well-versed in the art of breaking and entering, we often trudged back up the stairs to the others and laughed at our inexperience.
This was when I first noticed Eva.
She had been watching our useless attempts at the lock for ten minutes when finally she stood up from her perch at the top of the stairs. Had I not been sitting a few stairs below her I would have missed the unbent paper clip and small metal tool in her hand.
She pushed aside Tobias Rodriguez, a boy from my grade who began to kick the door in frustration, and said loudly, “get out, you idiot. I got this.”
Within two minutes she had the door open. A proud amused smirk graced her lips as she faced the cheers surrounding her. We all crowded around the doorway, looking down into the long stairwell. It was dark. Eva looked like she was about to step forward but Ana’s voice from above made us all jump and scramble back up.
I looked back when I reached the top of the stairs and noticed Eva still standing by the door, looking inside, curiously. I wanted to tell her to close it but Carol’s voice had me moving.
Attendance was usually perfect with the exception of the eldest Rodriguez boy who showed up late or not at all. He was a child “de la mala vida” Mamá often whispered when others couldn’t hear.
“You’re lucky Nora,” she said. “Vives en una casa de Dios.1”
1 You live in a house of God.
She was always telling me things about my classmates, informing me of their parents occupations and where they lived, talking about the households these parents ran as if they were businesses working to create the perfect adult. It was in this way that she subtly tried to hint who she approved of as potential friends for me. Mostly I ignored her comments. I didn’t really care for friends anymore.
That first month I spent most of my time alone and watched as the classmates around me settled into familiar groups. Most gathered with those their age and then divided into those of their own gender.
I didn’t speak to the girls my age, or rather, they didn’t speak to me. The blame lies with Madalyn Castillo. Madalyn and I went to the same school and were friends when we were younger. We used to be in the same ESL class until I switched to normal classes in the fourth grade. Now four years later, she spent most of our class glaring at me and whispering to the other girls, hands curled around the pink plastic rosary that hung about her neck.
I knew she was telling the girls stories about me and while it was a little hurtful to realize I was being pushed away I did find myself wondering which stories she was telling. Was she telling them about the time I cheated on a math test in third grade? Or maybe she was telling them about the time I dumped an entire water bottle on a boy’s head during recess because he’d thrown a spitball at me during Language Arts.
No, it had be something worse. It was probably last year’s incident when a couple of classmates and I rolled toilet paper into balls, dunked them in water from the tap, and threw them at the ceiling of the girl’s bathrooms on all three floors of the school. While the other girls were caught and punished for their actions, I was left alone, all accusations hurled toward me ignored.
“Nora is a good girl,” the teacher said. “She wouldn’t do something so horrible.”
Madalyn had seen me leaving the boy’s bathrooms after repeating the same offense.
On the third Sunday of classes Carol called on me to recite a passage. Knowing it wouldn’t be polite to sigh and groan, I stood up and walked to the front.
When I was younger, and Papá was still around, I read from the New Testament. We’d talk about the passages afterwards. I would ask questions and he’d do his best to explain. So staring down at the book wasn’t daunting for me. It was still something I reread for comfort.
I opened my mouth and began to read, my voice gliding over the Spanish words, enunciating and pronouncing without trouble. Older children that were called on after me stumbled through the sentences, even Madalyn (who was still in the ESL classes after all these years) fumbled with Juan 1:292. I never stuttered once.
2 John 1:29-30 “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
Once Carol and Ana discovered my talent I was asked to lead our prayers. The following week after I finished reciting el Padre Nuestro, signaling the end of the class, Eva came up to me.
“You have the most beautiful voice,” she said. “Why aren’t you reciting the prayers during misa?”
I paused in the middle of pulling my coat on and stared at her before shrugging. “I don’t think they’d let a fourteen year old up there unless they’re one of those monaguillos or whatever.”
Eva made a face and shook her head. “They should. You’d be better than any of those idiots up there.”
“Thanks?” I joined the crowd of children, filing out of the room.
I didn’t expect her to follow me but she did, falling into step beside me as the teachers led us down the block to the church.
She glanced at me before popping a piece of gum in her mouth. “I’m Eva, by the way.”
Her lips were shiny from the gloss she’d applied before class and she wore a skirt despite the chilly Autumn weather. I had no idea why she was talking to me. I was just a random girl in her class.
Still I nodded at her and replied, “I’m Nora.”
There weren’t many girls in our class and those who were Eva’s age distanced themselves from her and her loud chewing. Our conversations revolved completely around her and I was content to let it stay that way. The home was left at home, school at school, unless it was homework, Mamá said. The only topic that transcended place was God.
Besides it wasn’t like Eva ever asked me to share stories.
She told me everything—or at least tried to—during the brief moments we had before and after class. She complained about the workload she got as junior in high school (“You’re so lucky you’re only in eighth grade. I bet you don’t have anything to worry about.”). She talked about her family (“My ma’s sick and can’t work.”) and I even got to meet her five-year-old brother.
“This is Lucas,” she said patting the little boy’s head. “Tía couldn’t take care of him today.”
Lucas was small and shy and I had to resist the urge to hug him when he tried to unsuccessfully hide behind his sister’s legs. He made irregular appearances during our classes but whenever he did, I made sure to give him some of the snacks I had in my bag. Like his sister, he was always hungry.
Eva’s father never came up in conversation. Fathers were a tricky subject for most of us and it was generally understood that you shouldn’t ask.
Occasionally Carol and Ana invited los padres to recite prayers or answer any questions we had about our primera comunión. Sometimes Padre Hector would show up to read a passage or three, boring us all to death with his low and dull voice. If we were lucky Padre Manuel would come to us, usually showing up within the last half hour to participate or listen to our discussion.
Eva had a crush on Padre Manuel. She loved talking to him and coming up with different passages for him to interpret. Sometimes the entire class would just be a conversation between the two of them, a back and forth of questions and answers. Not even the teachers interrupted, too wrapped up in the gentle voice of Padre Manuel, lulled along with the class into the peace he offered.
“He’s not even a real priest yet.” Eva blew a bubble out of the pink gum and obnoxiously popped it with a click of her teeth. “Carol told me he’s not officially ordained or whatever. What do you think Nora?”
We were sitting on the stairs and I was distracted, trying to peer through the planks in order to copy from Madalyn’s booklet which was open on her lap below us. “About what?”
“About Manuel!” Eva snapped her fingers in front of my face to capture my attention. “Do you think I should tell him I like him?”
I looked up, gaping at her. “You can’t be serious. He’s like… thirty.”
“So he’s like ten years older than me.” Eva continued as if my reply had been encouragement. “My parents have eleven years age difference.”
I wanted to point out the unsuccessful marriage that turned out to be but refrained from doing so. Truth, Papá once told me, was never easy to hear.
“Do you think I should wear a dress?”
“I don’t…” I stared at her some more, trying to figure out whether she was serious or not. “I don’t know.” I finally said and went back to squinting down at Madalyn’s booklet again. I cursed when she caught sight of me and closed her book with a glare.
“Ámense de todo corazón los unos a los otros.3”Eva said with a grin.
3 Peter 1:22 “…love one another earnestly from a pure heart.”
“No, that has to do with pure love.” I said before I could stop myself.
“Which is exactly what my love for him is like!” She continued brightly, ignoring the sudden stillness that came over me. “Look, you don’t understand. He and I talk all the time. Not just during class but outside. I stay in his office and we talk and he gets this look…”
I bit my lip to prevent myself from speaking my mind. The urge to continue my previous thought about the verse was still too strong. Mamá’s voices warring over each other in my head about the meaning behind the words.
“You know what?” She stood up, looking over at the church. “I should just go tell him now. I could tell him as a confession just before mass. Or maybe I should do it after? Which is better?”
I looked down at my book, with its half answers, unsure of what to say. Thoughts and ideas flooded my mind but I pushed them away with a shrug. Eva couldn’t really be serious. It was best just to humor her. “Do what you want. After might be better, means more time to talk or whatever.”
Suddenly arms were wrapping around me and I stiffened at the contact. Eva quickly pulled away with a smile. “You’re the best Nora.”
She ran down the steps and followed the path around the side of the house, toward the street. Madalyn glared after her before snapping her attention to me, probably thinking I’d done something to make Eva stray off the path of righteousness.
I won’t say I didn’t get it, I did. Padre Manuel had that tall, dark, and handsome look going for him but that wasn’t what drew Eva to him. It was his eyes, I think, they were kind.
The following week I made sure to get to the house early. I was curious as to whether Eva had really gone through with her plan. Other children were already there, running and laughing, screeches loud enough to be heard from the front of the house. I looked around and found Eva sitting on a garbage can underneath the back stairs. She lifted her hand up to wipe her nose, movements sharp and jerky when she realized I was walking toward her.
I stopped to stand beside her, hands jammed in my jacket and gaze kept to the yard in front of us. Glancing out of the corner of my eyes I took her appearance in. She wasn’t wearing any lip gloss today and her eyeliner was smudged. There was a redness around her eyes and her eyelids were swollen. I remained silent and waited.
Eventually as the half hour passed, Eva stopped sniffling and began to jiggle her leg, impatient. By the time Carol called the class in, Eva was practically vibrating beside me. I made no move to follow the children trudging up the stairs, instead waiting for Eva. Madalyn glared at us on her way into the house but said nothing. Finally when the yard was clear Eva got up, making her way toward the path I’d taken to get to the yard.
I headed after her without a word and together we stepped onto the street. We walked away from the house and continued for a couple blocks before coming to an abandoned lot full of large stones. Eva chose a rock near the center, far away from the street and the houses across. She and I huddled close, bodies turned to each other.
“I didn’t get to tell him.” She said. “Padre Manuel I mean. He… Oh God. He was with Madalyn.” Eva broke off, suddenly going quiet.
I stared at her, mouth falling open in surprise. I closed it, brows furrowing together in confusion. “…what?”
“I went to his office.” Eva’s voice rose a little higher, breath sounding hollow as she spoke. “Padre Hector told me he was at the house with a student going over something and I could go there to see him. The basement was open which I thought was weird so—so I just sort of went down and they were there and she was—” she stopped to take a sharp breath, “—she was on her knees and I thought she was praying or something but then… the noises.”
She broke off with a frustrated noise, staring anywhere but at me. A dull buzzing noise began in my ears as I waited for her to continue the conversation. She didn’t; instead she began to cry, one hand propped up against her mouth to stifle the sobs I could hear distinctly over the rumble of traffic.
“Oh God, I should have known she’d do some stupid shit like this!” She angrily wiped away at her eyes. “She’s always coming up to me and telling me what a bad person you are and how you’ll lead me to hell or some stupid shit like that and then look at her!” She glared in the direction of the church. “She’s probably down there every morning before class, letting him fuck her like the dirty puta she is. He’s not even that good looking!”
I listened to her and swallowed down my anger. Of course Eva would blame Madalyn. It made sense to blame her but I couldn’t. Not really. I could only see Madalyn wearing a dark dress, holding flowers at my door with her parents behind her, giving Mamá el pésame. I could see her, lost and unsure, as she held out the bouquet to me with the single phrase, “lo siento mucho lo de tu papa” echoing through my mind.
Eva took a deep breath, trying to steady herself. I looked down at her hand placed on the rock, ensuring her balance atop it. Her red nail polish was chipping away and one of her nails was broken. I reached over and placed my own on hers, unsure if my touch was welcome or not. Her eyes, unfocused and bright with emotion, shut as soon as they met mine again. I reached with my other arm and pulled her forward. She was shaking all over and I held on, allowing her this moment.
“I was so fucking stupid wasn’t I?” Eva whispered.
Yes, I wanted to say but I didn’t. Instead I held her tighter.
We walked back to church where we met up with Mamá. I expected her to question Eva’s presence but her quiet demeanor must have stopped her. Or maybe it was because I was still holding Eva’s hand. Carol and Ana said nothing when they saw us and nodded a brief greeting in our direction.
4 Matthew 3:11 “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance. But he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.”
Padre Manuel led the sermon, choosing a verse from Mateo4. “Con este verso tenemos a nuestro salvador.” He stood underneath the cross hanging from the ceiling. His arms were outstretched and palms turned upwards, a silent plea toward the congregation. “Y el no es un Dios. El es hombre. Un hombre que purifica no con agua sino con fuego.5”
5 With this verse we have our savior… And he is no God. He is man. A man who cleanses not with water but with fire.
I stared down at my lap and watched Mamá’s hand curl around mine. Papá said this verse inspired his faith when he’d heard it from abuelito. A wave of rage fell over me and my throat began to fill, leaving me unable to swallow. I didn’t want to hear Padre Manuel say these words.
They were Papá’s favorite words.
I shut my eyes, trying to will away the voice that filled me with disgust. Mamá’s hand squeezed around mine; she must have thought my discomfort rose from something else.
When Mamá got up to receive la Eucaristía I looked at Eva who sat next to me. Her face was set in a frown and I followed her gaze, thinking it would be pointed at Padre Manuel but instead found her glare was directed at Madalyn who sat near the front with her parents. She was enraptured, eyes carefully trained forward on el padre.
Eva suddenly turned to me. “Meet me later?”
I was quiet for a few moments before I nodded. “Of course”
At home, Mamá sat at the kitchen counter, slicing tomatoes. I sat across from her, going through a bag of frijoles negros, throwing away any rocks I found. We worked in silence, moving around each other to get pots and dishes.
I wasn’t thinking about the beans. My mind was still on Madalyn and Padre Manuel. From what Eva had been able to tell me after she calmed down, Madalyn had volunteered as a monaguillo and was receiving tutoring classes from Padre Manuel so she’d been staying at the house after misa.
How had no one noticed yet? I had to tell someone. But who? Carol? Ana? I couldn’t just accuse a Padre without proper evidence. The TV was always going on about how padres were accused but nothing ever came of it. Either I had to see them or Eva had to say she saw them. What if I told Mamá? She would believe me and then—
“How was your class?” She picked up the bowl of clean beans from my still hands.
After a start I replied, “bien.”
“Los Rodriguez niños, their mother is sick. Sabías?” She asked. I shook my head, staring at the table peaking through. “Nora,” she began. “I know that desde el funeral, things are not easy. And today… Sé como dolió oír eso.”
No, I wanted to say, no sabes. However saying this would cause Mamá to snap and raise her voice. I didn’t want that—not if I wanted her help. Instead I nodded. She was struggling with her words and she looked older than she had in months. Or maybe her face had steadily been getting older since Papá’s death and I hadn’t noticed. She looked down at her hands which were hovering over the frijoles. The wrinkles were stretched over callouses and scars she received from working at a stove and a kitchen for most of her life.
“It hurt me too,” she continued, “Tu padre was important.”
I felt my eyes water suddenly and I looked down at my lap. It was the way in which she said “your father.” Foreign on her tongue—she always used to say “papá”—and causing her mouth to twist in pain.
I cleared my throat and nodded. “Lo se.”
“How’d you get away from your ma?” Eva asked. “Isn’t she crazy about you staying at home or whatever?”
I shrugged. “Does it matter?”
Eva raised a brow at me but otherwise said nothing. We stood huddled in a hallway on the first floor of her apartment building. At the end of the hallway was a narrow door which led out to the yard with overgrown weeds. She handed me some baggy sweats and a large hoodie.
“What’s this for?” I asked.
“Just put it over your clothes.” She replied impatiently.
She wore an identical set over her own and had a dark backpack slung over her shoulder. She pulled the hood over her head and motioned me to do the same before she pushed opened the door.
It was a little after six but since it was late November the sun had long since gone down. We trudged through the tall grass and came to a chain-link fence gate. Eva knelt down before a small tear in the links and pulled them apart even further, creating a bigger opening. She nudged her backpack through first before crawling after it. She stood on the other side, holding the wires for me. I glanced up at her apartment only once before following after her.
We walked, at first a little aimlessly until I realized that it wasn’t aimless at all. Eva was slowly but surely steering us in the direction of the house behind the church. I nudged her arm, trying to catch her attention but she ignored me.
Before long we stood in front of the house. I always found it strange whenever people said they were afraid of the dark but looking up at the building, I suddenly understood. The lights were out and the house stood quiet and undisturbed by the usual commotion of Sunday mornings. It felt wrong looking at a house I usually saw by day.
I gripped the sleeves of the hoodie and looked up and down the street. The other houses were dark as well and the only light came from a street lamp that kept flickering halfway down the block.
Eva pushed the gate just wide enough to slip through and beckoned me to follow. Once through she grabbed my hand and pulled me along. We headed toward the back stairs and climbed them, skipping over the boards that groaned under weight. Eva reached into her pocket and pulled out an unbent paper clip and a familiar metal tool. I stared at the two objects, dimly recalling my first memory of their use.
Before I even realized what was happening she had the door open. She let her bag drop off her shoulders, unzipped it and handed me a bottle of tequila before taking another one for herself. She yanked off the cork and walked to the other room, letting the liquid fall as she went.
I stared after her then looked down at the bottle. I had a faint idea of where this was going.
I swallowed hard. Papá’s voice was in my head, telling me this wasn’t the way. Hay otras maneras, Nora. Esta no es la unica.
But Madalyn’s face swam into view. Lo siento.
Without another thought I headed upstairs for the offices. When I felt satisfied with the amount I had sloshed on the upper floors, I returned to the first floor and found Eva struggling with the lock leading to the basement. She was crying, cursing under her breath every time her tools failed her.
Taking care not to frighten her, I descended the stairs, placing my bottle on a step above us. I grasped her shoulder and she stilled. She turned to me, eyes glossy with tears, the skin under her lips wrinkled in frustration.
I took the tools out of her hand. “I got this.”
A teary laugh bubbled out of her. “You don’t even know what to do.”
Staring down the lock, I placed the tools in their necessary slots. “Then tell me.”
I could feel Eva’s breath on my neck as she willed herself to calm down. I didn’t have to wait long. Her voice when she spoke the instructions were steady and firm. It took a couple tries but after a few minutes of fiddling there was a click and I had the door open. Wiping my sweaty palms on my baggy pants, I turned to her. She was already fumbling with her backpack, reaching for a flashlight. I grabbed my bottle and together we descended the stairs.
It took the fire department half an hour to reach the house and by then, the cause was lost. Instead of heading back to her apartment, Eva and I sat in the lot. From our perch we watched the smoke rise. No one had seen us and if they had they wouldn’t be able to tell it was two young girls in those baggy clothes. Eva had folded them neatly and stuffed them into her backpack along with the empty bottles.
She was smoking a cigarette which she passed to me every so couple of drags. It was my first time and I found myself coughing as I tried to get used to it. After a while of listening to the sirens Eva’s hand fell on top of mine and I held it in mine, happily.
She looked at me out of the corner of her eye. “I don’t think I’m coming back. Child services finally found out about us so… Lucas and I are moving, new school and everything.”
I stared at her in shock. “When?”
“Tomorrow.” She flicked the remnants of her cigarette away and continued to look at the smoke. “Don’t think they’ll let us come all the way out here for catequesis.”
Why hadn’t she said anything before? I looked down at our hands and wondered, had she always been this carefree about her touches before?
“Can you… can you say el Padre Nuestro?” Her voice cracked at the question.
6 “Our father in heaven,
hallowed be your name…
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven…
and forgive us our debts
for we ourselves forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.”
I hesitated but nodded. We rearranged ourselves, the front of our bodies facing each other as well as we could. I reached for her other hand and began, “Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo…” I didn’t want to say this prayer. I wanted to make her stay. I didn’t want to lose her. “Hágase tu voluntad en la tierra como en el cielo.” I wanted to tell her about Papá and how he probably would have loved to talk to her about la biblia all day. “Perdona nuestras ofensas, como también nosotros perdonamos a los que nos ofenden.” I wanted to tell her everything but urge faded. Eva was reciting the prayer under her breath and her hands were shaking. This would be her last memory of me. I raised my voice a little higher, letting the words flow smoothly from my lips. “No nos dejes caer en la tentación mas líbranos del mal.1”
She looked up at me, face clearing into a small smile. “Amen.”